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The Trump administration’s recent decision to slash refugee admissions to just 18,000 people in the next 12 months, is an extreme, xenophobic and immoral declaration. It is yet another shameful marker for an administration engaged in a seemingly endless race to the bottom of shocking and inhumane policies that betray everything our nation stands for.
Refugee resettlement is not a partisan issue. Since the program was established in 1980, it has enjoyed support through Republican and Democratic administrations and in Congress, with administrations historically setting the resettlement target at an average of 95,000. In 2016, during the final year of President Obama’s second term, the cap was set at 110,000 refugees; by last year, that number had fallen to just 30,000.
This is not normal. The Reagan administration admitted hundreds of thousands of refugees. “Our nation is a nation of immigrants. More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands,” President Reagan said.
Setting the refugee resettlement target at this historic low is an abandonment of our nation’s founding principles, an outright rejection of human rights and a shocking act that will have reverberations around the world for years to come.
We are in the midst of the worst global refugee crisis of our time. More than 70 million people have fled their homes — not by choice — but because of horrific wars, violence and climate change. As the president of Oxfam America, I have met these people. They are mothers, fathers and children, who have fled bombs in Syria, famine in South Sudan, violence in Central America. Many of these people live in limbo in neighboring countries — developing countries that are overburdened, yet providing for millions of refugees, while the rest of the world looks away.
Let us not forget our history. After the horror and destruction of World War II, nations around the world agreed upon basic principles of human dignity, of equal and inalienable rights. We codified them in international agreements and ratified them into our domestic laws. The 1951 Refugee Convention which ultimately led to the 1980 Refugee Act, signaled the U.S. commitment to refugee protections.
Prior to the disturbing recent change in direction, we not only upheld these principles but had historically resettled more refugees than all other nations combined. According to Pew Research, since 1980, the U.S. has resettled 3 million of the more than 4 million refugees around the world.
Since 1980, the U.S. has resettled 3 million of the more than 4 million refugees around the world.
Our leadership on refugee resettlement has been an important diplomatic tool and signal to the world that the U.S., regardless of the politics or party affiliation of the particular administration, is committed to protecting and upholding the human rights of the world’s most vulnerable people.
Over the years, the refugee resettlement program has underlined the American belief that all people — regardless of race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation — deserve an opportunity for a better life. Each year that the U.S. accepts fewer refugees, we signal to the world that human rights don’t matter so much anymore, that the U.S. is no longer such a welcoming place.
As we withdraw from our historic leadership on matters of refugee resettlement, other countries have not stepped in to fill the gap, leaving vulnerable refugees around the world with fewer options for protection. Today we see migrants trapped in camps like the one in Lesbos, Greece rioting out of desperation — a camp designed for 3,000, is now overflowing with 12,000 men, women and children. People are also willing to take unthinkable risks to find safety. Six people die each day attempting to cross the Mediterranean, according to the United Nations. (And too often those who do make it, are turned away or sent back.) Many of these people need protection that the U.S. no longer offers.
Americans aren’t hearing about this reality because it’s crowded out in the midst of controversy and chaos surrounding issues like child separation, the border wall and indefinite family detention. But people with legitimate refugee claims are simply being ignored.
For two years, we have witnessed the Trump administration chip away at America’s standing as a nation of moral decency. Remember, one week after his inauguration, President Trump signed an executive order intended to completely and indefinitely suspend the refugee resettlement program. While a federal court overturned the order, the signal was clear: refugees were no longer welcome here.
The administration found other ways to bar refugees — including the controversial Muslim ban -- through additional security and administrative restrictions that held up thousands in endless bureaucratic red tape. The result of this “backdoor ban” has been that tens of thousands of already-vetted refugees around the world lost their ability to come to the U.S.
Unfortunately, these bans had their intended effect: over the past two years, the administration admitted the fewest refugees in the nearly 40-year history of the resettlement program. Last year, a paltry 28,000 were admitted. In the midst of one of the worst humanitarian crises of the generation, the U.S. resettled just three Yemeni refugees in the past year.
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